Classic Tracks: Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me Not to Come"

Nov 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Gary Eskow


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“It gives a much better sound than using separate mics on different tracks,” adds Cooper. “Visuals are important. When the guys are close around a mic, they can see and communicate with each other easily. Phrasing and balance improves naturally, and the guys can mimimize vibrato issues on their own.”

“Let me underscore that point,” Podolor says. “The importance of the visualization element can't be overstated with regard to Three Dog Night recordings. We cut the band and the singers together, in one room, as if they were onstage, with no headphones. Drummers should never be forced to use headphones unless it's absolutely necessary. Floyd could hear nuances in his snare sound within the overall timbre of a track. But the moment you put headphones on him — or any other drummer — his dynamic tends to become unvarying and the color of his sound deteriorates.”

Podolor and Cooper used the Scully 8-track recorder they described in an earlier “Classic Track” article (July 2008) on the “Mama” session: “It's the same one we used when we recorded ‘Born to Be Wild,’” says Podolor. “We're always ready to modify any piece of equipment to get the sound we're looking for. But it's important to know when to leave things alone. Jimmy had an old Wurlitzer electric piano. Most Wurlitzers sounded like the one Ray Charles used — nice and clean. This one had a nasty tone. It was perfect for the character of ‘Mama,’ so we didn't touch it. We just directed its mono output right onto a track, adding maybe a touch of EQ on the way in.”

Mike Allsup's violin-like guitar lines add an important texture to the record. “Mike played a Les Paul,” says Podolor. “We tried Strats and other popular guitars, but the Les Paul give the biggest finished sound to his playing. At the time, the group was endorsed by Bruce, a company that made big, solid-state amplifiers. Mike went through a Bruce and a Fender Blender, which was a combo device that had fuzz and other effects. Next to it was a scaled-down revolving Leslie speaker. We'd ‘Y’ the output of Mike's guitar and record him direct, and through the effects as well. That was his signature sound, the one he always used, unless he was playing a rhythm part.”

“Those records were a true collaborative effort,” says Hutton. “We were all looking for places to introduce different sounds. Mike's weepy guitar part added a lot, of course. I added a little whistling part with my hands in the middle. At the start of the third verse we recorded an extra bass part using the pedals on the studio's B3. A friend of mine from grammar school was at the session, and he and I double-tracked the choruses twice, changing positions the second time to help fatten the sound.”

“When we were just about through laying down tracks, we felt that we needed something special on the ride-out,” says Podolor. “Bill handed out individual mics to the singers and they went out in the room and ad-libbed their closing lines.”

Over the course of about five years, Three Dog Night was, by the numbers, the most popular band in America. The group wracked up 21 consecutive Top 40 hits, 12 straight Gold LPs and a whopping total of almost 50 million records sold. However, Hutton is less pleased with Three Dog Night's place in the pop-music pantheon. “We've never been given much credit for anything!” he says with a laugh. “The critics certainly didn't like us. We were on the cover of Rolling Stone once, standing in front of our jet plane. At that point, we had more hits than Creedence, more Gold than the Stones and took in larger purses than Elvis, but the only angle that the article explored was how huge a money-making machine we'd become. Nothing about how we made records. But we were involved in everything — working with Richie and Bill to create effects we'd never heard before, like the pre-Frampton creation of a vocoder effect, running a vocal through a Leslie to make it shimmer, Mike's creative guitar sounds. In the age of the singer/songwriter, I think the fact that we didn't write our own material worked against us. What critics failed to appreciate was our ability to take songs other people wrote and arrange them in ways that were fresh and ear-catching.”

Critics be damned, Three Dog Night continues to play 85 shows a year to enthusiastic audiences. Their catalog has secured them a place in the firmament. And Hutton, Podolor and Cooper are currently working on a round of new material.

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